Fox's Glee sounds like a fun bit of TV, and it's true to life in that it features lots of scenes in which people who care passionately about art end up copying the works they're inspired by, and share their copies. But what does it mean for Rupert Murdoch's Fox to bring us all these positive messages about remixing the culture around us as a natural part of life and creativity, even as Rupert and his family are travelling the globe, calling every act of copying theft, declaring that fair use is illegal and will be eliminated, and that every use of work, no matter how trivial, must be compensated?
Christina Mulligan, a visiting fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, guest-posts on the Balkinization blog:
In one recent episode, the AV Club helps cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester film a near-exact copy of Madonna's Vogue music video (the real-life fine for copying Madonna's original? up to $150,000). Just a few episodes later, a video of Sue dancing to Olivia Newton-John's 1981 hit Physical is posted online (damages for recording the entirety of Physical on Sue's camcorder: up to $300,000). And let's not forget the glee club's many mash-ups — songs created by mixing together two other musical pieces. Each mash-up is a "preparation of a derivative work" of the original two songs' compositions – an action for which there is no compulsory license available, meaning (in plain English) that if the Glee kids were a real group of teenagers, they could not feasibly ask for — or hope to get — the copyright permissions they would need to make their songs, and their actions, legal under copyright law. Punishment for making each mash-up? Up to another $150,000 — times two.
The absence of any mention of copyright law in Glee illustrates a painful tension in American culture. While copyright holders assert that copyright violators are "stealing" their "property," people everywhere are remixing and recreating artistic works for the very same reasons the Glee kids do — to learn about themselves, to become better musicians, to build relationships with friends, and to pay homage to the artists who came before them. Glee's protagonists — and the writers who created them — see so little wrong with this behavior that the word 'copyright' is never even uttered.
You might be tempted to assume that this tension isn't a big deal because copyright holders won't go after creative kids or amateurs. But they do: In the 1990s, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) asked members of the American Camping Association, including Girl Scout troops,to pay royalties for singing copyrighted songs at camp. In 2004, the Beatles' copyright holders tried to prevent the release of The Grey Album – a mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album — and only gave up after massive civil disobedience resulted in the album's widespread distribution. Copyright holders even routinely demand that YouTube remove videos of kids dancing to popular music. While few copyright cases go to trial, copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) don't hesitate to seek stratospheric damage awards when they do, as in the Jammie Thomas-Rasset filesharing case.
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